Development and construction of the Pioneering Spirit, an exploration for Allseas and Bosch Rexroth

Development and construction of the Pioneering Spirit, an exploration for Allseas and Bosch Rexroth
Marginal Column

July 2017


The design and construction of the “Pioneering Spirit” by Allseas meant doing something that had never been done before – a pioneering effort for both Allseas and Bosch Rexroth. Thanks to engineering cleverness, courage and entrepreneurship, the mega vessel now sails on the high seas.

It is nearly 400 m long and more than 120 m wide. Those are the outside dimensions of the Pioneering Spirit, a vessel shaped like a huge catamaran. One of the very largest vessels ever built. But to really understand how big that is, you need to actually stand on the ship. When the Allseas engineers outlined the initial design – as early as 1986 – they had to do without that. They made plans for a structure which was to have functionality that had never before been built, let alone in those dimensions. So they had to do without the experience that is available for virtually any other project. As Martijn Schenkel, project manager of Allseas, explains, it has been all about pioneering, from the start of design right down to the last construction steps.

Tight steering

That uncertainty confronted not only Allseas, a designer, builder and user of specialized vessels for the installation and removal of drilling platforms and laying oil and gas pipes at sea, but also the hundreds of first-tier suppliers and the thousands of second-tier suppliers worldwide. Even though they only had to deliver a relatively tiny part of the entire ship, it was quite possible that work at its peak might demand more capacity than the subcontractor had in house at all. It is among other things for this reason that Allseas opened its own construction sites for this mega project. Assembly work outfitting (the preparation for commissioning) and the commissioning itself were done from units that were of such a size that no suppliers could be found with sufficient knowledge, quality and capacity.

Continuous pioneering

The engineering department of Bosch Rexroth in Boxtel investigated and delivered the hydraulic components and the local drive gear for the innovative topside lifting system, which had been configured and developed by Allseas. Before signing for this enormous job, the technological feasibility of which had not been demonstrated in detail and also for which the market was a little vague, it had to sold internally at the Bosch head office in Germany. ‘In particular proving that, in spite of all the uncertainties, we would be able to realize this project in a manageable manner was a deciding factor in this process’, according to managing director Ron van den Oetelaar.

‘This is a project that demands flexibility’, adds Schenkel, ‘from us and our suppliers. One that requires a typically Dutch mindset.’ So the Dutch contribution was considerable: about 600 Dutch companies were involved as suppliers in the development and construction of the Pioneering Spirit. The total value of supplied goods and services is more than 900 million euros.

Back to the drawing board

In fact, the initial skepticism from the German HQ about accepting such large contracts with so many uncertainties is of course not wholly unfounded, as Van den Oetelaar explains: ‘You run into problems that are really impossible to anticipate. The lifting system actually consists of sixteen virtually identical coupled systems. That means that sixteen specimens of each component also needs to be manufactured. I once worked out how many hydraulic valve units we had to produce. We would need three years just for the drilling! In order to quickly increase our capacity, we would have to purchase machines that I wasn’t sure even existed. So there was no alternative but to return to the drawing board with Allseas, resulting in a design with less valve units. The same applied for the special oil for the hydraulics. It turned out that the amount we needed was 1.5 times our permanent oil supplier’s annual output. Here as well, we started an iterative process and eventually chose an alternative oil type.’

Capacity challenges

The engineering work and production of the hydraulic cylinders by Bosch Rexroth was done in Boxtel, but the multinational’s facilities in the Czech Republic and Germany were also engaged: ‘At one time we even rented some former production halls from Wärtsilä to assemble and integrate sixteen enormous modules. We deployed our own staff there, but also plenty of contractors, so that our work could continue on other projects. Because of course we wanted to be able to continue to serve our other customers too’, according to Van den Oetelaar.